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The Story of Tenor Guitars
All text and images © Steve Pyott, 2008
Web pages  - GBK Graphics
The Story of Tenor Guitars - Interesting Four Stringed Instruments

What Are Tenor Guitars?
Tenor guitars are interesting four stringed instruments normally made in the shape of a guitar, or sometimes with a lute-like pear shaped body or, rarely, with a round banjo-like wooden body. They can be acoustic and/or electric and they can come in the form of flat top, archtop, wood-bodied or metal-bodied resonator or solid-bodied instruments.

Tenor guitars generally have a scale length of around 23 inches, but sometimes as low as 21 inches, and are usually tuned in fifths, as CGDA, similar to the tenor banjo, Other tunings are possible, however, such as 'guitar tuning' or 'Chicago tuning' - DGBE, 'Irish' or 'octave mandolin' tuning - GDAE and various 'open' tunings, such as CGCG and DADA, which can be used for slide playing.

CGDA Tenor Guitar Tuning
The normal CGDA fifths tuning is wide and therefore very 'open' and it gives the instrument wonderful voicings from both open and closed chords. The fifths tuning also makes for very logical chord shapes that can be moved up and down the neck. The instrument is equally well suited to both rhythm and lead playing. It is also excellent for the 'chord melody' style of playing where the melody is usually carried by the note on the highest (A) string in the chord shape.

What Are Plectrum Guitars?
The plectrum guitar is a close four stringed relative of the tenor guitar with a scale length of 26-27 inches and tunings that are usually based on the plectrum banjo - CGBD or DGBD. Plectrum guitars are very suitable for guitar tuning - DGBE, 'octave mandolin' tuning - GDAE and even a re-entrant CGDA tuning, which has the D and A strings tuned down a whole octave - because of their longer scale length but are unsuitable for non-re-entrant CGDA tuning because of the high A string. Plectrum guitars were not made in as large numbers as tenor guitars and are now rarer than tenor guitars.

Who Made Tenor Guitars?
All the major guitar makers, such as Gibson, Epiphone, Martin, Gretsch, Guild and National, have manufactured tenor (and plectrum) guitars as production instruments. Makers, such as Gibson, even used to offer the tenor (or plectrum) models as a custom option for their six string guitar models at no extra charge. Gibson also had a line of tenor guitars under their 'budget' brand name of Kalamazoo. Budget tenor guitars by makers, such as Harmony, Regal, Stella and Kay, were made in large numbers in the 50s, 60s and 70s and are still widely available.

Tenor guitars were manufactured continuously by Gibson and Martin from the 1920s until the 1970s. National Instruments also made significant numbers of resonator tenor and plectrum guitars between the 20s and 40s, some of which were also used by jazz musicians as a second instrument. Dobro, another company associated with the Dopyiera Brothers, also built wood-bodied and metal-bodied resonator tenor guitars.

How Were Tenor and Plectrum Guitars Used in the 1920s, 30s and 40s?
Tenor guitars are now very closely associated with the tenor banjo with its similar standard CGDA fifths tuning. They initially came to significant commercial prominence in the late 1920s and early 1930s as tenor banjos were being replaced by six string guitars in jazz bands and dance orchestras.

The advantage of tenor guitars was that tenor banjo players could double on tenor guitars to get a guitar-like sonority without having to learn the six string guitar. This is a practice still carried out by many contemporary jazz banjo players. This period is generally regarded as the initial 'golden age' of the tenor guitar.

Plectrum guitars played a similar role for plectrum banjoists but this was much less common than for tenor guitars. One of the best known plectrum guitarists from the Jazz Age was Eddie Condon, who started out on banjo in the 1920s and then switched to a Gibson L7 plectrum guitar in the 1930s and stayed with it all his musical life up to the 1960s.

Two of the McKendrick brothers, confusingly both named Mike - 'Big' Mike and 'Little' Mike, doubled on tenor banjos and tenor guitars in jazz bands dating from the 20s. According to Bob Brozman in his excellent book on National Instruments - The History and Artistry of National Instruments, they both played National tenor guitars and they are shown in the book in photos with their National tenor guitars.

'Big' Mike McKendrick both managed and played with Louis Armstrong bands while 'Little' Mike McKendrick played with various bands, including Tiny Parham. Brozman's book also features photos of Hawaiian music bands that include players with both National tenor and plectrum guitars.

The Delmore Brothers were a very influential pioneering country music duet from the early 1930s to the late 40s that featured the tenor guitar. The Delmore Brothers were one of the original country vocal harmonising sibling acts that established the mould for later similar acts, such as the Louvin Brothers, and even later, the Everly Brothers.

The younger of the Delmore Brothers, Rabon, played the tenor guitar as an accompaniment to his older brother, Alton's, six string guitar. Rabon favoured the Martin 0-18T tenor guitar and the Louvin Brothers later recorded a famous tribute album to the Delmores which featured the Martin 0-18T tenor that had been played by Rabon. Delmore Brothers recordings are readily available and make very enjoyable listening.

Another interesting 1930s band to feature the tenor guitar was the Hoosier Hotshots, considered to be the creators of mid-western rural jazz. Their leader, Ken Trietsch, played the tenor guitar, as well as doubling on the tuba. Their recordings, which are still available, are very clever, great fun and are well worth investigating.

As the six string guitar eventually became much more popular in bands in the 1930s and 40s and in jazz generally, tenor guitars became much less played, although some tenor guitar models had been made in very large numbers throughout this period and are now still common.

The Tenor Guitar and Texas Fiddle Music
A very old musical style called Texas fiddling uses the tenor guitar as part of its rhythm accompaniment. Texas fiddle music has had a very long continuous history which still continues strongly to this day. Annual old time fiddling contests have been held in Weiser, Idaho, since 1914, but the current contests date from 1953. The music in these contests usually strongly feature the tenor guitar. The tenor guitar of choice for this style seems to be the Martin 0-18T.

Well known exponents of the tenor guitar in Texas fiddle music include Jerry Thomassen, Al Mouledous, and Gary Lee Moore. Jerry Thomassen has a signature tenor guitar named after him that is built by luthier Steve Parks. Gary Lee Moore has produced an excellent teaching resource for playing the tenor guitar as backup for Texas fiddling, entitled "Getting Started in Fiddle Backup", obtainable as a free pdf download from various sources including the Tenor Guitar Registry.

Selmer Maccaferri Four Stringed and Tenor Guitars
In the 1930s Selmer Guitars in Paris manufactured four string guitars based on guitar designs by the famous Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri that were to be marketed to banjo players as a second four string guitar-like instrument. The six string versions of these guitars had become famous because of their association with the famous French gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

The two main four string models offered by Selmer included a regular tenor guitar Modéle Tenor, with a 23 inch scale length, tuned CGDA, and the Eddie Freeman Special (EFS), with a larger body and a longer scale length, using a re-entrant CGDA tuning, which has the D and A strings tuned down a whole octave.

The EFS had been designed by English tenor banjoist Eddie Freeman to have an improved six string guitar sonority for jazz and dance band rhythm guitar work than the normal tenor guitar with its very high A string. However, it had a re-entrant CGDA tuning so that it could still be played by tenor banjoists.

The EFS was based on a six string model and it had a larger six string body and a six string scale length of 25.25 inches, rather than the tenor's smaller body and normal 23 inch scale length. The CGDA tuning used was re-entrant with the C and D tuned in the same octave, and the G and the A tuned in the same octave, lowering the overall tone. The tuning and scale length give this very unusual four string guitar a beautiful sonority that is very close to that of the six string guitar, compared to a regular tenor guitar, and it is a very interesting sounding rhythm instrument.

Selmer Guitars heavily promoted the EFS guitar through the Melody Maker and Eddie Freeman even wrote a special tune for it called In All Sincerity. There are also promotional photos of the well known British singer, banjoist and guitarist Al Bowlly, playing the Eddie Freeman Special and it can also be seen in use by Ray Noble's guitarist in a photo of a recording session of his orchestra.

Unfortunately, this guitar was not commercially successful in the 1930s, due to concerted resistance by the British six string guitar fraternity, particularly led by Ivor Mairaints. Many were subsequently converted to the much more valuable six string models because of the Django Reinhardt connection. Originals of the EFS are now very rare and are consequently highly valuable.

Interestingly, modern Maccaferri-style luthiers, such as the late David Hodson in the UK and Shelley Park in Canada, as well as others, have now started building this four string model again due to demand from their customers.  Many have now been made and they are becoming more widely played. They have a beautiful sound and offer a very broad range of tuning possibilities including CGDA, GDAE, DGBE, CGBD, DGBD and ADGB.

The Revival of the Tenor Guitar in the 1950s and 60s.
Tenor guitars came to prominence again in the 1950s and 60s, possibly due to the effects of the Dixieland jazz revival and the folk music boom. At this time, they were made by makers such as Epiphone, Gibson, Guild and Gretsch mostly as archtop acoustics and/or electrics, as well as a range of flat top models by Martin.

Around this time in the 1950s and 60s, electric tenor guitars were also referred to as 'lead guitars'. The rationale for this term is now unclear, although it may have been used for marketing purposes because lead playing on a six string guitar often involves just using its top four strings.

A major player of the electric tenor as a lead guitarist in the bebop style from the 40s to the 70s was the brilliant jazz guitarist, Tiny Grimes, whose recordings with the The Cats and The Fiddle and other bands, are well worth investigating as Tiny is probably the biggest star of the tenor guitar in terms of virtuosity.

The Martin 0-18T flat top acoustic tenor guitar was made very famous in the late 1950s by Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio. The acoustic tenor guitar became a popular instrument in the folk music boom of this period, particularly this model. In 1997, as a tribute to 40 years of the Kingston Trio, Martin planned to re-issue 40 limited edition 40 year commemorative sets of the three main instruments used by the Kingston Trio to celebrate their founding in 1957 but only received orders for 33.

The commemorative set included a beautiful custom Martin Kingston Trio KT-18T tenor guitar with The Kingston Trio engraved on the fingerboard in mother-of-pearl and its label was signed by C. F. Martin IV, the CEO of Martin Guitars and all the surviving members of the Kingston Trio. It came with a luxurious green plush-lined case and this very special instrument had the most wonderful sound of any acoustic flat top tenor guitar.

Eddie Peabody and the Banjoline
In 1968 the famous plectrum banjoist Eddie Peabody designed a six string, four course, electric guitar-like instrument with a plectrum scale length of 26 inches and plectrum tuning of CGDB. It was called the Banjoline and it was manufactured by Rickenbacker and possibly also Fender. The Rickenbacker version was based on their hollow-bodied 360 model and it had two pick ups and volume and tone controls. It also had an Ac'cent tremolo arm..

The six strings were grouped into sets of four courses with the C and the G strings doubled in octaves and the D and the B strings as single strings. Due to its doubled strings and electric pick ups, its sonority was similar to that of the doubled strings of the twelve string electric guitar that had been made famous by Rickenbacker as played by George Harrison of The Beatles and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds.

The Banjoline was available as the standard model 6005 and the De Luxe model 6006 and it came in three colours Fireglo, Mapleglo, and Azureglo. The De Luxe 6006 was double-bound with checkered binding and it also had checkered binding on the headstock

Unfortunately, although the Banjoline was made in quite large numbers, it was not commercially successful at this time. However, it remains a fascinating instrument with a unique sound and a wide range of very interesting tuning possibilities. LP recordings of Eddie Peabody playing banjo classics on the Banjoline were recorded in the 60s and can still sometimes be found, such as Eddie Plays Smoothies or Eddie Plays More Smoothies.

Current Upsurge of Interest in the Tenor Guitar
In more recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in the tenor guitar and there are a number of specialist tenor guitar luthiers, such as Joel Eckhaus of Earnest Instruments and Steve Parks. Earnest Instruments offer a comprehensive range of tenor guitars in several different styles, or they can customise existing instruments for their clients.

Tenor guitars are now even beginning to be mass manufactured again, such as the acoustic models offered by Gold Tone Instruments and Lark in the Morning. Amistar, a Czech Republic-based resonator guitar manufacturer, following in the tradition of the Dopyera Brothers of National and Dobro guitars fame, also offer new tenor guitar models, such as The Stager. As an indication of the renewed interest in tenor guitars perhaps, Martin have recently released a new production tenor guitar model - the Martin LXM 'Little Martin'.

Tenor guitars sound particularly good in their original role as rhythm instruments in jazz and blues, as well as combining with six string guitars in jazz, blues, folk or ethnic music settings. Being tuned in fifths, they also work well with both mandolin family and violin family instruments.

They can also fit very nicely into the mould of 'ethnic' sounding instruments, such as the bouzouki. Prominent modern players of the tenor guitar include Neko Case and Ani Di Franco in the U.S. and Seth Lakeman in the UK. They are often used by musicians looking to replace or augment sounds produced by more conventional instruments.

Where Can Tenor Guitars Be Found?
Since they were mostly originally manufactured in the U.S.A., tenor guitars can be very difficult to locate elsewhere. Up until a few years ago they were usually regarded as musical oddities with little value but now they are becoming very attractive to both players and collectors, particularly the fascinating looking and sounding National resonator instruments. Luthiers will build them as custom instruments but this can be an expensive option for an initial purchase. Manufacturers, such as Gibson or Martin, will also still build tenor guitars as custom shop instruments but this can be an even more expensive option.

Production tenor guitars by Gibson and Martin from the 1940s to the 1970s are still generally available, such as Gibson's ETG-150 electric/acoustic tenor guitar and Martin's 0-18T acoustic tenor guitar. Original tenor guitars in good condition by any of the major guitar makers are very desirable, both as instruments for playing, and as interesting collectibles in their own right. Some specially ordered custom tenor guitar models can be extremely rare since only one of them may have been manufactured.

Tenor guitars can range from the lower cost budget models, such as Harmony, Regal, Stella and Kay to good quality Gibson, Guild, Gretsch or Martin production instruments up to their more highly prized custom-built instruments. They can usually be found in on-line auction sites, such as eBay, or being sold by many of the reputable on-line dealers of vintage instruments, such as Gruhn Guitars, Elderly Instruments, Mandolin Brothers, Bernunzio Instruments, Rothmans Guitars and Players Vintage Instruments, who specialise in rare and unusual tenor guitars.

Soares'y Guitars produces an interesting range of small workshop handcrafted flat top, archtop and solid-bodied tenor guitars that are both excellent quality and great value.

However be very careful - getting interested in playing and collecting tenor guitars can become highly addictive.

Further Information about Tenor Guitars
For further information see this brilliant non-commercial web site which is dedicated to spreading the good word about the tenor guitar.

This web site includes detailed information about tenor guitars and also where they can be located.  It also has a link to the only on-line discussion forum dedicated to the tenor guitar - the Tenor Guitar Registry.

For detailed information about most of the production models of tenor guitar that were ever built, see the excellent book by George Gruhn and Walter Carter: Gruhn's Guide To Vintage Guitars, as well as some of their other photographic books on guitars that also feature tenor guitars.

Akira Tsumura's green book "Guitars - The Tsumura Collection" has a very interesting photographic section on tenor guitars which includes very rare examples, such as one made by the famous luthier, John D'Angelico. Tsumura's other books on his banjo collection also feature some interesting tenor guitars.